Designing a New Fiscal Framework: Understanding and Confronting Uncertainty

Publication date: 26 Apr 2021 | Publication type: NIESR Occasional Paper | NIESR Author(s): Chadha, J S; Pabst, A | Report number: 61

Prologue by Jagjit Chadha

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has focussed on furthering our understanding of fiscal policy throughout most of its life. And so I was delighted when the Nuffield Foundation gave us the opportunity to ask some hard questions about our current fiscal settlement. With the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to throw much of our normal loci completely off beam, it is a good time to consider the role of fiscal policy. Our work has been motivated by the simple observation that we need to re-examine carefully the objectives, instruments and framework guiding fiscal policy. 

Naturally, some aspects of our current fiscal settlement have involved worthwhile and probably enduring innovations, such as the establishment of the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2010. But it is abundantly clear that the fiscal settlement in the Long Expansion of 1992-2007 and in the period following the global financial crisis of 2007-8 need careful re-framing if we are to tackle the deep seated economic problems revealed by EU exit and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Fiscal policy represents a complex, multifaceted attempt by the state to fill gaps in the market economy and encourage the private sector to locate productive practices. But to meet those objectives fiscal policies have to be both sufficiently flexible to respond to changing circumstances but also be guided by some form of principles or rules that allow progress to be judged and expectations formed about the likely path of public expenditure, taxes and debt. Too much fiscal policy operates by the smoke and mirrors of political surprise and partial leak rather than the more sober manner of timetabled meetings and clear, minuted decisions that characterise monetary policy, to name but one example.

The large number of fiscal rules we have had to observe since 2010 alongside an increasing frustration with economic performance tell us that the post-2010 fiscal settlement has failed. It makes no sense to be in thrall to arbitrary rules that do not match society's broader demands for policy to be condoned by what I have called “Budgetarians”, who think it is sufficient to assess fiscal policy in terms of whether that arbitrary target will or will not be hit at some equally arbitrary date coincidental with a parliamentary term. The sad but obvious fact is that the demands of the economy cannot be folded into political horizons.

In this Occasional Paper we have collected a number of views from a variety of experts. We have worked with two former central bankers to try and understand the meaning of fiscal space both from the supply side of debt issuance and the demand side of investment demand. Two former Chief Secretaries to the Treasury provide considerable details from their times in office. And a former Whitehall civil servant helps us understand the approaches to spending controls. We have commissioned an academic contribution on how to approach the current debt problem following Covid-19 but also an introspection from an academiccum-market participant on the value of debt.

Original work from myself and colleagues at NIESR examines the political framework, the theory of monetary and fiscal interactions, how politicians seem to revise expenditure plans, how changes in economic prospects also matter for revision and then the case of issuing different types of debt. Finally, we are very grateful that two former Chancellors have agreed to write Forewords to this book and that the current Head of the Government Economic Service has supported our interest in developing more attention on fiscal policy. Obviously, none of them necessarily agree with any of the points made or conclusions drawn. It is our simple hope that our line of enquiry will motivate serious examination of our fiscal settlement. While what we say cannot necessarily be thought to be the Treasury View, it is certainly the view from Dean Trench Street.